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Buddhism naturalized?

Review of Owen Flanagan,

the Bodhisattvas brain: Buddhism naturalized
Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011
Matthew MacKenzie
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013
In The Bodhisattvas Brain: BuddhismNaturalized, Owen Flanagan undertakes a project
of what he calls cosmopolitan philosophy, with an aim to develop and interrogate a
naturalized Buddhism. Cosmopolitan philosophy, for Flanagan, involves an on-going
practice of, reading and living and speaking across different traditions as open, non-
committal, energized by an ironic or skeptical attitude about all the forms of life being
expressed, embodied, and discussed, including ones own . . . (Flanagan 2011: 2).
A project of naturalization requires a conception of naturalism that can serve as a
hermeneutic and philosophical standard against which certain things may be judged
naturalistically acceptable or unacceptable. To his credit, Flanagan admits that natural-
ism is a vague concept, but its basic motto, he says, is Just say no to the supernatural.
That is: What there is, and all there is, is natural stuff, and everything that happens has
some set of natural causes that produce italthough we may not be able to figure out
what these causes are or were (Flanagan 2011: 2). Of course, these characterizations are
circular, and thus it remains an open question as to which things will turn out to be
naturalistically acceptable and which will not. On Flanagans account, Buddhism
naturalized is primarily a Buddhism, without the mind-numbing and wishful hocus-
pocus such as rebirth, a karmic system . . . , without nirvana, without bodhisattvas
flying on lotus leaves, . . . without nonphysical states of mind, . . . (Flanagan 2011: 3).
Instead, he sets out to sketch a version of Buddhism(or a new viewinspired by it) that is
consistent with neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory and scientific materialism, including
neurophysicalism or the viewthat mental events are brain events (Flanagan 2011: 3).
Why bother sketching a naturalized Buddhism? According to Flanagan, naturalized
Buddhism (along with Confucianism) offers, an interesting, possibly useful way of
conceiving the human predicament, of thinking about meaning for finite material beings
living in a material world (Flanagan 2011: 6).
Phenom Cogn Sci
DOI 10.1007/s11097-013-9330-2
M. MacKenzie (*)
Department of Philosophy, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, USA
e-mail: matt.mackenzie@colostate.edu
The Bodhisattvas Brain is divided into two parts. Part I, An Essay in Compar-
ative Neurophilosophy, intervenes in a discussion between contemporary neurosci-
ence, psychology, and philosophy as to whether Buddhism (or certain Buddhist
meditative practices) can reliably produce happiness or flourishing. Part II, Bud-
dhism as a Natural Philosophy, engages central questions in Buddhist metaphysics
and epistemology from a naturalistic point of view.
In part I, Flanagan addresses the recent neuroscientific studies of both happiness and
various forms of meditation. Neuroscientists such as Richard Davidson (UW-Madison)
and Paul Ekman (Berkeley) have investigated the links between happiness and medita-
tion by investigating the brain activity of long-term Buddhist meditators. This research
has led, as Flanagan points out in chapter 1, to some rather sensationalist media reports
that Buddhist practice produces happiness or that certain Buddhist meditators (e.g.,
Matthieu Ricard) are possibly the happiest people in the world. Here Flanagan is at his
best in carefully sorting through the methodological and philosophical tangle of this
discussion. In particular, he usefully appropriates the distinction between eudaimonia as
a particular state (flourishing) or way of being (living well) articulated and pursued
within a particular tradition and happiness as a subjective feeling state (Flanagan 2011:
1112). One basic problem with the current discussion, Flanagan argues, is a tendency
to conflate eudaimonia and happiness, and then proceed to treat (supposed) neural
correlates of subjective happiness with scientific proof that meditation produces
flourishing or well-being. It should be noted, though, that Flanagan does not accuse
researchers such as Davidson and Ekman of these problems.
Having distinguished flourishing and happiness, Flanagan goes on to characterize
what he calls eudaimonia
, the distinctive form of flourishing pursued in the
Buddhist tradition. This conception involves two aspects:
1. A stable sense of serenity and contentment (not the sort of happy-happy/joy-
joy/click-your-heels feeling state that is widely sought and often promoted in the
West as the best kind of happiness).
2. This serene and contented state is caused by or constituted by enlightenment or
wisdom and virtue or goodness and meditation or mindfulness as these are
characterized within Buddhist philosophy (Flanagan 2011: 16).
He calls the first aspect happiness
, whereas the second aspect characterizes
the form of life constitutive of or conducive to happiness
. Flanagan claims that,
so characterized, eudaimonia
is naturalistically acceptable, in part because it
does not rely on the notions of nirva or rebirth. Yet it is far from clear that when
properly contextualized the Buddhist path can make sense without the notions of
karma, rebirth, and especially nirva. Nirva is the ultimate goal of Buddhism
and accepting that only nirvna is peace is traditionally considered a necessary
feature of the path. Thus, unlike bodhisattvas flying on lotus-leaves, the concepts of
karma, rebirth, and nirva constitute a central part of the inner logic of the tradition
in such a way that it is highly questionable that a Buddhism shorn of these elements is
Buddhism at all. Be that as it may, Flanagans clear and insightful discussion of the
connections between virtue, wisdom, happiness, and flourishing in the Buddhist
tradition constitute the strongest aspect of the book.
In part II, Flanagan begins the work of a naturalistic reconstruction of central
aspects of Buddhist metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. In chapter 4, he interprets
M. MacKenzie
the doctrine of antman (no-self) as a rejection of the substantial self, in favor of a
broadly reductionist, psychological continuity account of personal identity, similar to
those found in Hume, Locke, James, and Parfit. Here Flanagan is on firm interpretive
and philosophical ground, though he intentionally avoids the more radically reduc-
tionist forms of the no-self doctrine defended in classical Indian Buddhism, which he
dubs antman extremism. Chapter 5 takes up the supposed connection between
Buddhist wisdom qua insight into how things areimpermanent, dependently orig-
inated, and selflessand a Buddhist ethics of compassion. In particular, Flanagan
investigates the possible connections between the doctrine of no-self and Buddhist
ethics. On his interpretation, while there is no logical entailment from a metaphysics
of no-self to an ethics of (morally) selfless compassion, deep experiential appreciation
of the metaphysics can facilitate the cultivation of compassion.
In chapter 6, Flanagan takes up a comparative study of Buddhism, Aristotles
thought, and the Hellenistic schools on the relation between virtue and happiness. In
particular, he argues that both Aristotle and Buddhist philosophers such as ntideva
(8th cent. C.E.) espouse what he calls Aristotles Law:
(1) Virtue is a necessary condition for happiness (along with reason); (2) normally
(barring bad luck, including lack of basic necessities and neurochemical imbal-
ances) it is sufficient to cause/produce happiness (Flanagan 2011: 170).
Arguably, however, much of Buddhist thought on this question is closer to the
more radical Stoic claim that virtueincluding in the Buddhist case the virtue of
insight or wisdom, prajis necessary and sufficient for happiness (at least
). That is, nirva as the cessation of the causes of suffering and
the realization of the virtues of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity, is thought to
involve a form of happiness that is not conditional upon ones circumstances. Yet, as
Flanagan points, it is hard to see how this more robust notion of liberation could be
naturalized in his terms. His more modest interpretation is that Buddhist flourishing
involves, an active life of wisdom, virtue, and mindfulness, and that, the life of a
reliably, but not necessarily, yields happiness
(Flanagan 2011:
201). This view is also well represented in the Buddhist tradition, though it is
understood within the context of a path that traverses many lifetimes and retains as
its ultimate goal nirva in the more robust sense.
Flanagans project is both philosophically and hermeneutically ambitious. The
results, however, are mixed; The Bodhisattvas Brain offers both valuable insights and
worrisome blindspots. The book is at its strongest as a study in comparative
eudaimonics, the empirical and philosophical study of human flourishing (Flanagan
2011: 18). On these issues, Flanagan makes important contributions to a more
globally informed discussion of ethics and moral psychology, including a nuanced
comparative study of Aristotelian and Buddhist ethics. On the other hand, Flanagans
project of naturalizing Buddhism strikes this reviewer as much less successful.
First, the notions of nirva, karma, and rebirth, even if false, are not merely
mind-numbing and wishful hocus-pocus that can be easily removed from a mod-
ernized or demythologized Buddhism. Rather, they are part of the basic theoretical
and practical framework of the Buddhist tradition. To jettison or radically reinterpret
these ideas runs the risk of seriously distorting the inner logic of the tradition. Second,
there is inner tension within Flanagans project. On the one hand, he wants to pursue a
Buddhism naturalized? Review of Owen Flanagan
cosmopolitan project that involves an ironic or skeptical attitude about all the forms
of life . . . including ones own (Flanagan 2011: 2). On the other hand, he wants to
make Buddhism both interesting and safe for naturalistically inclined analytic phi-
losophers. This creates a dialogical asymmetry in which Flanagans own naturalism
and scientific materialism becomes the standard of what is philosophically accept-
able. Thus, Flanagans own version of naturalism and neurophysicalism is never
really up for serious challenge in the book. Indeed, it appears that, on Flanagans
view, rejection of nonphysical states of mind and acceptance of (at least) the token-
identity of mental events and brain events marks the boundary of an acceptable
contemporary account of mind.
Yet, classical Buddhist philosophers rejected this kind of view on philosophical, not
merely dogmatic, grounds. For instance, they arguedto gloss it in contemporary
termsthat luminosity (the capacity for phenomenal presentation) and cognizance
(intentionality) are the defining features (svalak aa) of mental events and that these
are not the defining features (indeed appear not to be features) of any uncontroversially
physical events. Thus there is reason to reject the identity of mental and physical events.
Yet, we observe regular co-variation between mental and physical events such as
actions, and in a way that supports the relevant counterfactuals needed to warrant the
attribution of a causal connection. Despite the functional interdependence between
mental and physical events, however, these thinkers argued that there was no epistemi-
cally transparent account of how the physical could produce the mental (or vice versa).
That is, Buddhist philosophers saw that phenomenal consciousness, intentionality, and
mental causation present serious problems for materialism. These considerations,
among others, lead many Buddhist thinkers to endorse an interactionist event dualism
along with a type of phenomenological psychology geared toward describing and
classifying the basic features and connections that constitute the flow of conscious
mental life. This view, or one close to it, is arguably compatible with the nomological
supervenience of the mental on the physical and is not far from the forms of naturalistic
dualism defended today by David Chalmers and others. Perhaps Flanagans
neurophysicalism will turn out to be the better overall account of the mind, but a more
direct engagement with the sophisticated philosophical anti-materialism of Buddhist
philosophy of mind would have strengthened Flanagans laudable project of cosmopol-
itan philosophy pursued in The Bodhisattvas Brain.
M. MacKenzie